The Department of State(-Building) and the Rhetoric of War

by Chris Borgen

Last week, Max Boot of the Council on Foreign Relations wrote an op-ed in the NY Times that argued for re-orienting the State Department. Starting with a discussion of the fifty foreign service officers who received orders to go to Iraq, he wrote:

However welcome, this is only a baby step toward a larger objective: to reorient the department and the government as a whole for the global war on Islamic terrorism. Yes, this is a war, but it’s a very different war from conventional conflicts like World War II or the Civil War. It is, in essence, a global counterinsurgency, and few counterinsurgencies have ever been won by force alone.

While maintaining military power remains important, even more crucial goals are aiding moderate Muslims, countering enemy propaganda, promoting economic growth, flexing our political and diplomatic muscles to achieve vital objectives peacefully, gathering intelligence, promoting international cooperation, and building the rule of law in ungoverned lands.

I disagree with Boot over the description that we are in a global war. Yes, we are at war in Iraq and in Afghanistan. But this “global war on terror” rhetoric has gotten out of hand and is being used for unwarranted (pun intended) extensions of Executive power under the guise the Commander-in-Chief power. (Unlke a war with a defined enemy, there is no clear end to this conflict–no peace treaty will be signed with “Terror”–and these enhanced Executive powers and lower levels of civil liberties just become the new status quo.) That is an issue that has been heavily debated on this blog and I will return to it briefly in a moment.

But for now I want to focus on the core of his argument, which is about how the State Department needs to change its focus. Boot argues that much of the expertise we had built-up during the Cold War was squandered in the 1990’s in search of a “peace dividend,” leaving the State Department simultaneously bloated by its absorption of the Agency for International Development and the US Information Agency and, paradoxically, thin of the expertise and surge capacity needed to respond to the challenges of modern counter-insurgency, nation-building, and public diplomacy operations. Thus the slack has been picked up by the military. He continues:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice recognizes the problem and has tried to reorient the State Department. She has, among other steps, moved diplomats out of Western Europe and into the developing world, set up a “war room” where Arabic-speaking diplomats can address the Middle Eastern press, and fostered a clumsily named Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization to plan for nation-building assignments.

Such efforts, however, are unlikely to succeed because they run counter to centuries of State Department tradition that emphasizes liaison work with established governments rather than creating governments from scratch or communicating with foreign citizens over the heads of their leaders.

Boot suggests pulling USAID and the USIA out of the State Department and once again giving them their own mandates. USAID, in particular, could become the lead nation-building agency for the U.S., “sort of a global FEMA.” (I assume he means that as a description of mandate, not of effectiveness.) Along those lines, USAID and related government bureaus should have “reservists” with expertise in disaster relief, police training, and other crucial skills, that they can call in when needed. He concludes:

James R. Locher, a former Congressional aide who helped draft the 1986 Goldwater-Nichols Act that brought greater coordination among the different branches of the military, is now leading a nonpartisan consortium of Washington policy and research groups that is trying to devise legislation to enhance the “unity of effort” among different branches of the government. Ideas under consideration include forcing civilian bureaucrats to serve a “joint tour” in a different agency and creating regional diplomatic coordinators who would marshal civilian agencies in the same way that the Pentagon’s Central Command and Pacific Command coordinate military units abroad. A partial prototype of this concept may be tested with the Defense Department’s new Africa Command, which is going to have a larger civilian component than the other combat commands.

Mr. Locher’s goal is to write a bill that would update the legendary National Security Act of 1947, which created the bureaucratic instruments (the C.I.A., Defense Department, National Security Council and the like) used to win the cold war. He hopes to have legislation ready in time for a new president in 2009. That’s an ambitious objective, but it’s one worth striving for if we’re going to adjust to the post-9/11 era of American foreign policy.

Some will no doubt object that to build up these capacities will encourage reckless “imperialism” or “militarism.” But improving our abilities in nation-building, strategic communications, security advising and related disciplines will actually lessen the chances that we will need to mount a major military intervention such as the one in Iraq. Our goal should be not just to deal with the aftermath of wars (Phase IV, in military parlance) but to solve problems before they grow into full-blown wars. In other words, to win Phase Zero.

While I disagree with Boot’s war rhetoric, I think he is focusing on the right logistical issues. Regardless as to whether or not you think this is a “Long War” (as a matter of law), due to the fact the U.S. has been and will continue for the foreseeable future to be globally engaged as part of its national security strategy, we must build the capacities that we need to address the challenges we face. The old paradigms of war—the tank battles and naval engagements—are not as useful in thinking about national security today. Effective strategy will be less about artillery and gunboats and more about economic and social development and law enforcement coordination. Also of central concern should be the issues to which politicians love to give lip-service but do very little about: decreasing our dependency on oil and reorganizing our too-easily-collapsable electricity grid. (See, for example, John Robb on peak oil and on the energy grid here and here.)

While you don’t have to believe this is a war to want to focus on these issues, the types solutions you envision may be dependent on whether you buy the war paradigm. Taken too literally, one can settle on answers that do more harm than good by stripping away our own civil liberties, breeding a culture of fear, and being callous to the aspirations and political views of those beyond our borders. I don’t think Boot does that in this essay. But, going beyond this essay, while many people from across the political spectrum may agree with his diagnosis that the U.S. is under-prepared to address the threats posed by the interplay of failed states and terror networks, the extent to which the rhetoric of war is persuasive may lead to different, if not divergent, prescriptions.

http://opiniojuris.org/2007/11/18/the-department-of-state-building-and-the-rhetoric-of-war/

3 Responses

  1. Boot said:

    Such efforts, however, are unlikely to succeed because they run counter to centuries of State Department tradition that emphasizes liaison work with established governments rather than creating governments from scratch or communicating with foreign citizens over the heads of their leaders.

    Working from the assumption that whatever the U.S. does abroad furthers democracy, Boot thinks the U.S. can leapfrog organic progression to democracy, bypassing existing leaders of sovereign countries (many of them propped up by U.S. support, incidentally) to bring democracy directly to oppressed people. But as those people didn’t vote for U.S. leaders to rebuild their governments from scratch, and U.S. leaders are in no way electorally accountable to those people, Boot is actually moving these countries a step back in their democratic progression, from sovereign nations to occupied nations. There is no plausible way to spin this as furthering democracy–this is absolutely obvious to everyone but the Americans.

    Regardless as to whether or not you think this is a “Long War” (as a matter of law), due to the fact the U.S. has been and will continue for the foreseeable future to be globally engaged as part of its national security strategy, we must build the capacities that we need to address the challenges we face.

    The challenges we currently face are keeping the White House from invading Iran or helping Israel attack Syria or stirring up more mischief in Somalia. In the medium term, the challenges we face are to drag U.S. foreign policy back to a sane place where we don’t go around invading sovereign countries, committing war crimes, torturing innocents, and trampling civil liberties. These should be the priorities–reigning in American abuses–not fiddling at the margins of the DOS to make our next incursions into the developing world more successful.

  2. The following initiatives are aimed at developing the capacity to deliver technical legal assistance in post-conflict environments and also professionalizing a civilian corps of rule of law promoters that can be deployed around the world:

    DOS/CRS (Office of the Coordinator for Reconstruction and Stabilization) http://www.state.gov/s/crs/

    USIP/INPROL (International Network to Promote the Rule of Law) http://www.inprol.org/

    OSCE/PAE-REACT (Rapid Expert Assistance and Co-operation Teams)http://www.pae-react.com

    Andrew Solomon

  3. The model appears to be the British colonial service. So he is really talking about American being a 21st century colonial power. Some of us demur from imperialism.

    Best,

    Ben

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